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High energy: Exercise gives state residents a lesson in electricity generation

Screen capture of the computer application Citizens Energy Choices Exercise

Graduate student Paul Meier's energy choices exercise (37K JPG)

"If you could decide how to generate Wisconsin's electricity, how would you do it?" asks student Paul Meier, who is working toward a PhD under Professor Gerald Kulcinski.

In the wake of a recent energy crunch, that's a question many state residents had the opportunity to answer when they tried out Meier's computerized energy choices exercise at the Powering Wisconsin energy conference Sept. 24 in Madison.

The conference was the culmination of an energy-awareness project driven by civic journalism group We the People/Wisconsin. "Powering Wisconsin is built on the belief that media partners of We The People — as well as policymakers concerned about the search for energy solutions — can learn a great deal by listening to the citizens," says Deborah Jackson Still, a project manager for the group. "At the summit, participants created a citizens' energy plan that included a summary of news coverage, some statewide polling results and, most importantly, a ranking of energy choices by citizens."

In the energy choices exercise, which Meier developed with help from Assistant Professor of Engineering Physics Paul Wilson, users first must select a growth rate for Wisconsin's future electricity consumption. Then, based on that number, they add or subtract megawatts from several generation sources — conventional coal, clean coal, gas/oil turbine, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, biomass, solar photovoltaic and transmission lines — until they have provided enough electric power to meet their projected energy needs. As a result of participants' selections, the program returns a low, medium or high blackout risk; an overview of how their choices affected the average residential electric bill, and the amounts of carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas), and nitrogen and sulfur oxides (sources of smog and acid rain).

"We The People wanted people to consider economics, environment and other concerns, and this is basically a tool to let them do that," says Meier. "It's partly a game and partly educational. They can see how their changes affect emissions, the cost for electricity and reliability."

The exercise also includes links to more information about each energy source, and enables people to explore such idealistic options as powering the state entirely with wind — even though it's unrealistic for technical and economic reasons. "Philosophically, I don't want to limit anybody from playing games," says Meier, "because they might want to ask, 'Well, what if we could power the whole state with wind? What would that cost? What would our emissions be?' I think that's part of the purpose of this."

The exercise currently is a Microsoft Excel document, but eventually Meier and Kulcinski hope to put it on the web. They also may develop similar exercises for each state in the country, or expand one to a national model, says Kulcinski.


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Date last modified: Friday, 09-Nov-2001 09:37:00 CST
Date created: 07-Nov-2001 10:49:00